On DVD: The A-Team

I was all set to make excuses for the unremarkable action of The A-Team on the grounds that it is harmless; but nothing that occupies two hours of your life for no particular reason is necessarily "harmless." The A-Team requires little discussion, little description, and is best enjoyed on a beer-infused Saturday afternoon. It's a well-cast retread, souped up with some outrageous pyrotechnics and a plot that tries to be twisty and topical. Given the film's source, it was never going to be a classic. But it works as a tribute or remake of the series, capturing the fuck-it-all playfulness of '80s action, and director Joe Carnahan works hard to maintain our interest with a solid visual sense and absurd but well-handled set pieces. The actors enjoy themselves, too, which helps us have a good time even when we're rolling our eyes (which is often).

Stephen J. Cannell's hyper-destructive group of mercenaries is recast as a ragtag bunch of Army Rangers who get caught up in a scheme to recover plates from a mint used by Saddam Hussein to counterfeit American currency. Amid inter-agency bickering, the plan is thwarted by an evil group of military contractors (read: Blackwater), who seize the plates and kill the operation's authorizing general (Gerald McRaney). And here comes the ol' frame-up, disgracing our heroes, who are stripped of their ranks and thrown in prison. A shady CIA operative known as Lynch (Patrick Wilson) comes to their "rescue," however, with an offer to arrange for each of the four to escape from prison if they promise to recover the stolen plates. Seeing an opportunity to avenge his friend, the murdered general, Hannibal Smith (Liam Neeson) agrees to the scheme and helps break Faceman (Bradley Cooper), B.A. Baracus (Quinton "Rampage" Jackson), and Murdoch (Sharlto Copley) out of their respective correctional facilities.

The characterizations are fairly consistent with the personalities we came to know through the original series. Neeson's Hannibal is grizzled and weathered, chomps cigars, and tosses off occasional one-liners, although he does so with less mugging and bravado than George Peppard. Cooper's Faceman is a bastion of self-confidence and baseless charm, marginally winning us over with his sheer disregard of all danger and protocol. Copley musters a passable "Southern" accent and exhibits what appears to be a strong improvisational ability as the loose cannon Murdoch. As B.A. Baracus, Jackson is the weak link. He lacks the charisma and ferocity of Mr. T. is famous for, and comes off as inarticulate and bland.

Plot-wise, The A-Team strives to land somewhere between an episode of the original series and the Bourne thrillers. There are at least one too many layers of intrigue, which come across as obligatory anyway. Why not just set up a villain and have the group go after him (or her)? That kind of directness usually works best in action pictures, especially ones with ambitious set pieces. Director Carnahan handles these with wit and a good sense of space, even when they are totally cartoonish (i.e., the scene with the airborne tank). Unfortunately, the final action sequence is the weakest - its staging is clunky, almost veering into Michael Bay territory, and is further hampered by some terrible CGI work. 

The musical score by Alan Silvestri strays too far from the martial themes of the original series for my taste; the electronics are jarring and oddly inappropriate somehow. But the supporting cast is quite good, particularly the likable Wilson as the iffy CIA operative, and McRaney as the slain general. Jessica Biel is just absurd as a military attache to the State Department. Keep an eye out for a bizarrely brief cameo by Jon Hamm.

Note: Fox's DVD includes two versions of the film - the theatrical version (118 minutes) and a longer "Extended Cut" (133 minutes). I did not see the movie in theaters, and chose the longer cut for my first go at The A Team. Although there were no particular passages of the film that felt extraneous, I felt that the film was "fat" overall. I suspect very strongly that the shorter theatrical version plays better in terms of pacing. 

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